Nostalgia can be a power thing. Looking back at games from your youth it's easy to overlook thier flaws. Looking back at sonic's first 8-bit outing I'm left wondering, was it actually any good?
First of all, I want to make it clear that I absolutely loved Sonic the Hedgehog on my SEGA Master System as a child. I vividly remember the first time I saw the game running on a SEGA Mega Drive in the window of a local Dixons. Watching Sonic as he blazed across the landscape, running around loops and stomping badniks that were brave enough to try and slow him down. Up until this point I had never wanted a games console. My family owned a Commodore 64 with a selection of games, and I knew a few friends who owned an NES. However, seeing this just blew them all away. I knew right there and then, I wanted Sonic the Hedgehog - no, I needed it!
Even at a young age I understood asking for a £129.99 games console was out of the questions. So when my parents and family members asked what I wanted for Christmas I simply asked for money. It became an obsession. As a child I was never given pocket money or an allowance - when I visited my grandparents and they gave me 50 pence to spend on sweets, I would resist the temptation and squirrel it away with the rest of my pennies.
Christmas came and went. As I feverishly opened my cards, a £5 note here, a smattering of £1 coins there, I could barely contain my excitement. My total savings after a couple of months of saving and Christmas? £58 and a bit of change. A long way short of my lofty £129.99 goal.
Feeling defeated, my dad took me back to Dixons - perhaps there was a similar game for our Commodore C64? Alas, there wasn't. Heading home we stopped by a Boots store, while my dad was picking up baby supplies for my younger brother, I spotted a white box sitting on the shelf - with a picture of Sonic the Hedgehog launching across this small console. It was, of course, the SEGA Master System, and it was only £44.99, and included Alex Kidd (or Alex the Kidd as I incorrectly called him for the next decade or so). I snapped it up in my arms, worried that someone else would buy it first, and refused to let go until I was at home setting my new console up on the living room's 14" TV. And so began my life-long love of Sonic the Hedgehog and SEGA.
Booting it up I saw the classic Sonic wagging his finger with that smirk. I knew this was one cool hedgehog. Heading into the first stage I could barely contain my excitement, here comes the Green Hill Zone. I was running through palm trees, collecting rings, rolling down hills and avoiding deadly spike traps. It was exciting but one thing was bugging me, where are the loops?
Now with hindsight, it's clear that SEGA's ageing Master System couldn't compete with the more powerful 16-bit Mega Drive. While the Master System version is still a relatively fast platformer, it's entirely possible to outrun the screen on the first stage, Ancient knew something needed to change.
Rather than having large stages that you can race to end, the 8-bit versions slow the pace down for some really tight platforming action. Taking cues from its bigger brother, all the essentials are here; rings, badniks, Dr Robotnik, spinning and rolling through exotic locations and a boss fight on the third act of most stages. There are a few differences to the formula, however. Possibly the first change you'll notice is that when Sonic is struck, he can no longer scramble to recollect his rings, getting hit will make you lose all your rings with no chance of recovering them.
The third acts contain the boss of each zone, just like on the Mega Drive version. However, unlike that version, there is no full stage leading into these confrontations, and because of this Sonic doesn't have a chance to collect any rings meaning one wrong move on any of the game's bosses equals a lost life. It would appear that this makes the 8-bit version of the game more difficult, perhaps even unfair, but thankfully this isn't the case. The slower pace, tight controls and thoughtful boss and level designs mean the game always feels fair and rarely does the game feel like it cheated you out of that extra life.
Bonus stages are also completely optional, with the six hidden Chaos Emeralds are hidden in each stage, often requiring small diversions off of the main route to locate. All six of these collectables are required for the true ending, and their inclusion adds to the game's replayability as you locate each one.
This doesn't mean that everything is perfect. Some stages, most notably two early on in the game on Bridge Zone and Jungle Zone put Sonic in a forced scrolling stage. While these were common in the late 80s and 90s, they severely hamper your enjoyment of these two acts as Sonic will be consistently pushing up against the edge of the screen or waiting impatiently, tapping his foot and all, for the screen to scroll along so he can continue. With these few missteps aside, Sonic the Hedgehog on the Master System plays fantastically, although a little slower than it's Mega Drive counterpart.
With the gameplay aside, that leaves the presentation. When I first picked up my Master System, in my eyes it looks every bit as amazing as the version I first saw running in that store window. This is obviously not the case. Most of the detail, especially in the backgrounds, has been removed or heavily reduced. Some stages such as Jungle Zone still manage to look fantastic for the time, and bosses all look like real machines created by the deranged Dr Robotnik.
Ironically my largest issue with the graphics is the small size of many of the enemy badniks. Why are they all so small? This is likely a limitation to the number of sprites the console could handle without introducing the dreaded 'flickering', regardless it's still a disappointment that Sonic stands much larger than almost all of his foes.
Ancient should be commended in for the extra attention they add between stages. Rather than simply kicking you into the next zone, Sonic the Hedgehog shows you a map of South Island, plotting your route across the island towards Dr Robotnik's lair, complete will billowing black smoke overshadowing the otherwise pristine island.
The final aspect of the game's presentation is in it's audio. Once again, rather than try to recreate the Mega Drive's soundtrack, an entirely new set of tracks has been created for this outing. The stage tunes are all memorable and give each stage a unique identity. Sound effects such as Sonic's jump, collecting rings as well as a nice thump as smash badniks are chunkier sounding versions of the 16-bit version, giving a sense of continuity between the two games.
Overall the audio does a great job at making this outing seem like an exciting adventure for our plucky blue hedgehog, remaining upbeat for most of the game, building up to the final confrontation with the evil Doctor himself.
All of these elements come together for a great platformer for the Master System, and while it's not going to be one of the top 10 Sonic titles available, it's certainly a solid recommendation for classic Sonic the Hedgehog and Master System fans alike, and shows that the Master System could still produce fun and engaging 2D platformers, even when the 16-bit giants were king. SEGA did not need to release their flagship title on their outgoing hardware, but in a move that was typical SEGA for the time, they went ahead and did it anyway. The fact that I regularly come back to this game every year or so is a testament to how enjoyable this game is after almost 30 years - with or without the nostalgia.